UK Politics

Blairism then and now

Just a few thoughts that spring from the post below on Blair’s impassioned performance today.

Someone asked me the other day why I was reluctant to describe myself as Blairite – it is an interesting question and I guess the stuff below raises it again. In short the answer is – I still don’t buy the whole package…but….

I have my criticisms of the government’s approach to a number of issues (and even in today’s conference I found Blair’s defence of ‘Faith Schools’ unconvincing). As well as concern about the creeping influence on the public realm of ‘faith’, I’m also wary of private finance initiatives in the NHS and Education. I’ve got what could be called a more libertarian line on matters such as freedom of speech (I oppose the religious hatred law), the right to smoke and to drive my car without all the obstructions and instructions that have been introduced in the past decade. I’ve long been disillusioned by the government’s stunts on crime and asylum and I don’t like the idea of ASBOs but am unmoved by the debates over ID cards.

I’m disappointed that there hasn’t been a greater effort to bring about a real consitutional change to the House of Lords and the regions of England (while recognising the historic changes in Wales and Scotland). I’d like less bureaucratic nonsense in the public sector and a more radical shift away from the failed policies at local level to deal with integration in communities. I’m alarmed at some of the utilitarian talk about education ‘for the labour market’ but I also think that the huge expansion of higher education is leading a lot of people up the garden path. I’m in favour of selection based on ability in schools.

And like everyone on the left I’ve got a list of things I’d like to see more done on – a higher minimium wage, stronger rights for trade unionists, better and bigger investment in the ‘forgotten communities’ of the North and elsewhere.

So, in an admittedly odd mixture of Old Labour and libertarian ways, I’ve got lots of issues where I am opposed to the positions of the Blair governments.

Now, predictably, comes the big ‘But’.

On the vital international issues of the day (and the term foreign policy doesn’t really do the matter justice) I find I’m with Blair all the way. He was right to play a role in saving Kosovo from Serbian death squads, right to offer Britain’s help in the liberation of Afghanistan from clerical fascism and right to ask our armed forces to help free Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny and to stand by the Iraqi people in the terrible onslaught they have since faced from Ba’athists and Jihadists. He recognises the threat from violent Islamism and supports democratisation.

And, while I long had trouble with Blair’s accent (sorry its a northern Labour man thing) and some of his phraseology and I wish he had been able to make the case for the Iraq without being tied so closely to the official WMD argument and had been more critical of Bush’s failures in Iraq since the removal of Saddam, it has to be said that he has argued lucidly and with passion for basic positions and principles in the face of near uniform opposition, hostility and ridicule from his own political constituency and the supposedly left section of the media.

So while the prospect of a Gordon Brown led Labour Party and government appeals to me on a number of domestic issues, I’ve started worrying about whether ‘Blairism’ will survive on the international front. Every now and then I start thinking with dread about a return to the cabinet for Robin Cook or even Clare Short when Brown takes charge. I start to wonder whether the ‘Scotsmen in Suits’ who currently toe the line on foreign policy really mean it? Or will they be tempted to make a clean start and neutralise the Guardinista discontent by moving Britain towards the French and German consensus over the Middle East?

Until the liberation of Iraq I shared the Hattersley hope that one day we would ‘get our Labour Party back’ from the management consultant who took over the company. But now when I think about the changes ahead for Labour there is only one issue that preoccupies me – that the Blairite foreign policy positions have to be maintained.

Whatever Blairism may have meant in the late nineties, there is no doubt that his legacy will be his internationalism. His reform of the Labour Party, his electoral success, the Third Way golden period will all, rightly, be recalled in the books that will be written but they pale into insignificance alongside Britain’s role alongside the United States in fighting for freedom and against the new fascism.

More importantly given the struggle against Islamist jihadism and other forms of totalitarianism will be with us for years to come it is a legacy that is worth defending and maintaining. As the Tories showed after Thatcher it is tempting for political parties to try and neutralise the controversial and radical aspects of a legacy when they make the change from their long-term leader. I hope Labour can resist that temptation – it matters too much.